SAMPS was previously Association of Commercial Professionals for Life Sciences (ACP-LS)

Converting Problems Into Profit, Part 2

March 8, 2016

How to Transform Anger Into Appreciation

Satisfied laboratory workerThe first article in this series reviewed the overt and not-so-obvious values of customer complaints, their potential for negative and positive impact throughout every department in your organization, and the returns (no pun intended) you can achieve if your people can see problems for the opportunities that they always present.

Hopefully Part 1 sold you on the why. This article focuses on the how, but first, take a moment to think about what problem solvers REALLY do.

Problem solvers solve problems, right?

Arguably, no.

Solving problems is what they accomplish. What they really do is help people see and sort through possible explanations for their issues.

Your customers are well educated and most likely scored higher on standardized tests than I did (then again, so did much of the country), so why can't they solve their own problems?

They could, but fortunately for you, they ask for your help.

Be it the manic pace and cut-throat competition of 21st-century research, the expectation of instant gratification created by streaming music and same-day delivery, lack of confidence, or a combination therein, the highly intelligent populace we serve often forgets to apply the deductive skills they use everyday in the lab.

But pure logic alone isn't enough to satisfy an unhappy customer. It might even anger them.

Before you address the issue

Define success — win the battle or the war?
What actions will advance your company's business objectives in the long run? When you look back 3 months from now, would you have done anything differently?

Consider the players and the playing field
Complaints about your product or service involve much more than your product or service. They include people — complete with demanding personal and professional lives; the work environment — also demanding; and business context — all customers are important; some have an immediate and obvious impact on your sales budget, but today's low-priority lab might be tomorrow's 20 million dollar project lead.

Consider the scenario below.

After working 18 hours in the lab, a researcher leaves a PCR kit on the bench overnight. Realizing his error the next morning, he contacts your tech support group and requests a free replacement.

How could your support representative respond?

  • The customer screwed up. "No replacement for you!"
  • Your support person consults your sales rep
    • The researcher is the department's highly respected and admired PCR guru
    • The researcher chronically errs and never takes responsibility
    • The researcher chronically errs and never takes responsibility, but the rep is in the final stages of securing a long-term contract with that researcher's lab
  • Your support rep provides the customer with data showing that the nucleotides are stable at room temperature for at least 1 week, but replaces the enzyme as a goodwill gesture, and then notifies the rep who's trying to secure a long-term contract

I'm not recommending one approach over another, and there are other possible responses, but here are 2 recommendations for customer-facing staff:

  • Remember the ultimate goal
  • Options always exist. Take time to find them and consider whom they impact before you act

Set the right tonepartner or prosecutor?
What might a customer be thinking when they approach you with a complaint?

  • "I'm going to wring their necks!"
  • "They already have my money. Why should they care?"
  • "I'm at their mercy."
  • "I'm dead if I can't finish this experiment by Friday."

Customers might arrive angry, scared, with low expectations, or with a chip on their shoulder. Given these attitudes, will your interaction be more productive if the customer perceives you as a partner or a prosecutor?

What's the difference?

  • Partners ask questions that address both sides of an issue
  • Prosecutors direct questions at the side suspected of a crime

Address the issue

Get the facts. All of them. Assume nothing.
Before you can fix a problem to the benefit of your company and your customer, it's essential to understand every aspect of the issue, most notably:

  • Product history
    • "Have you used this microarray previously"?
    • "Same lot?"
    • "Stored in the same location as the previous slide from the same lot?"
    • "With same antibody?"
    • "With the same lot of the same antibody?"

This isn't meant to be a complete list, but to illustrate the need to dig deep for nuance, eg, another vial of the same lot of antibody was used successfully, but was that vial stored in the same freezer as the suspect vial? Was the successful vial used on the same scanner as the suspect vial?

Will all these questions annoy the customer? Maybe, especially if the support rep comes across as a prosecutor. Do the benefits of asking all these questions outweigh the risk of alienating the customer? That's another nuance that the support rep has to assess.

  •  User experience   

Determining a customer's expertise with a product or technique is very important, but "Do you have much experience with microarrays?" isn't a practical question. However, "How are your experiments going with other microarray-antibody combinations?" can lead to the same information. So can a quick text to the sales rep.

These principles hold for the vendor side, too. How current is your company's complaint tracking?

Help the customer define possible explanations
Get All the Facts and Define the Possibilities are two sides of the same coin.

If your support team thoroughly gathered the details from both sides of the issue, then the possible explanations will appear for your customer, sometimes without your help.

  • "One of my colleagues generated better data with the same vial of antibody 2 days ago."
  • "One of my colleagues generated better data with the same vial of antibody 2 days ago, but yesterday somebody else had poor results with the same vial on a different microarray."
  • "Please hold on while I check our complaint records... This is the fourth complaint on this lot over the last 6 months."
  • "This was my first run on a new scanner."
  • "I had better results with a different microarray slide from the same lot."
  • "I don't have time for this. Just replace the damned microarray!"

Help the customer work through the possibilities and create goodwill
Blindly replacing product or services to a customer without helping them understand what went wrong is akin to offering a drink to an alcoholic. But strategically providing free product as inducement to execute follow-up experiments that will identify the actual cause carries several benefits, including:

  • You position yourself as a true partner
  • You eliminate a reason for the customer to speak with the competition
  • You bought time to involve your sales rep and position her as a hero
  • You might learn something new about your product

Uncooperative customers

"I don't have time for this. Just replace the damned microarray!"

Consider why the customer refuses to cooperate. Impatience? Fear? "You guys are morons and your products are crap!" might actually mean "My director will have my head if I don't get him the data by Monday!"

Nobody should tolerate abuse, but the support rep who can keep her eye on the business prize when the customer loses her cool can win the battle and the war.

Inform the team
After contacting and obtaining advice from other groups vested in the issue — eg, sales reps, sales managers, business planners, R&D — the support rep can create a strategy to deal with the situation that everyone has blessed. This way, all parties with skin in the game are informed and prepared for the ultimate outcome.

Next up

Resolving problems is a valuable skill. Preventing them — well, you tell me.

The next article in this series reviews how interactive technology can prevent problems, build better thinkers, and create new business opportunities.

"Can interactivity really do all that?"

No problem.

Learn more about turning customer problems into opportunities via the podcast at Life Science Marketing Radio.

Image courtesy of Photokanok at

Alan Gerstein, SAMPS Digital Editorial Director, is a biotech industry veteran who morphed into an interactive content developer experienced at blending the oft-conflicting needs of users, clients, and search engines. Along the way he has developed strategies and information solutions to better support the training and education needs of the life science research community. He also had the good fortune to lead the efforts of nearly two-dozen researchers to create The Molecular Biology Problem Solver.

SAMPS, Sales And Marketing Professionals in Scientific research, is the first and only organization dedicated to sales and marketing professionals within the life sciences.

The association’s goal is to serve its members who work in commercial roles for life science products and services companies and associated businesses, globally.
SAMPS was previously named ACP-LS. We feel that SAMPS more clearly describes the membership, and will form a better foundation from which to expand this membership globally. 
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